Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, ostensibly a philanthropic program to bring the unconnected online so they can benefit from the Internet, has faced intense criticism in India. This is because the program does not provide access to “The Internet”, but to Facebook and specific services they approve on the platform. An overview of the criticism can be found in Mahesh Murthy’s article: “Facebook’s new internet.org is evil”.
I have a data card from Reliance, the network operator Facebook is collaborating with in India to launch this program. I find the messages I’ve been receiving from Reliance and Facebook to be very different from what Mark Zuckerberg has been saying in public.
Yesterday, Mark narrated how a farmer benefited from Free Basics by looking up information about the weather and market prices.
“As of today, everyone in India nationwide can access free internet services for health, education, jobs and communication through Internet.org’s Free Basics app on the Reliance network… Today, nearly 1 billion people are currently without internet access in India. Now with Internet.org’s Free Basics available to everyone in India, many more people like Ganesh and Bharati will have access to the information and opportunity the internet brings.”
Mark’s post reminds me of the way Bill Clinton and other politicians give stump speeches by pointing out individuals in the crowd affected by certain policies. It is very effective. I wonder what the farmer, Ganesh, would say if he were asked whether he could have accessed the weather and market apps while paying regular data charges. Mobile data in India is far cheaper than in the U.S., and often bought in ‘sachet’ packs of a few hundred megabytes.
The starkest elision in Mark’s post, however, is that the way he positions this program to a global audience is not the message Reliance or Facebook users are seeing about this program. We are being told it’s all about free Facebook.
Here are three SMS notifications I received from Reliance over the last week.
Reliance launches the New Way to Facebook ! Login www.facebook.com and Just Tap on Free button to chat;comment;like without Data pack ! Tell your friends also.
Reliance launches Facebook TAP service ! Enjoy FB without Data Pack ! Login www.facebook.com now and Just Tap on Free button to chat , comment, like for free!
Ab paye free Facebook seva bina kisi Data Pack or WiFi ke sirf apne Reliance number pe.Nishulk seva ke liye Login kare www.facebook.com aur Free button dabaye.
If you visit Facebook’s mobile website on Reliance, you see this:
Mark’s post doesn’t mention Facebook at all, whereas these messages are all about accessing Facebook for free.
It certainly makes me wonder about the actual purpose of this program. There has to be a way to expand global internet access without ushering in an era of Facebook monopoly, spread under the guise of philanthropy.